The Race: 1973
During divisive times, the comedies vying for Emmy gold created legendary laughs.
On May 20, 1973, at L.A.’s glamorous (and now long-gone) Shubert Theatre, Hollywood’s elite gathered to toast its TV favorites for Emmy’s silver anniversary.
Two months earlier, the U.S. had made its anticlimactic withdrawal from Vietnam, and just three days earlier, the Watergate hearings went live across the nation from the Senate.
The potential trophy takers ranged from the biting war satire M*A*S*H to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which showcased the comedy world’s first modern, single career woman.
In between were three titles from TV firebrand Norman Lear: Sanford and Son, a remake of a British working-class tale; All in the Family, centering on the bigoted Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) of Queens, New York; and Maude, an All in the Family spinoff headlining Bea Arthur as Archie’s opinionated cousin-in-law across town.
Four of the five shows aired on CBS; Sanford and Son was on NBC. While all had much to say, the most topical jokes came from All in the Family and Maude.
The storylines on Maude were hardly in the Brady Bunch wheelhouse. In the comedy’s debut season, the titular housewife and grandmother — after much angst — opted for an abortion in a two-parter airing months before the decision on Roe v. Wade. Ultraconservatives blanched, and a few network affiliates refused to air the episodes. But others found solace and perspective.
“We covered abortion, mental health, alcoholism — and it was funny!” marvels Adrienne Barbeau, who played Maude’s feminist daughter, Carol. Coming off her Tony-nominated turn as Rizzo in Grease, Barbeau was suddenly regarded as a voice of her generation. “That forced me to look at the social issues we were addressing. On my first hiatus, I worked at a low-cost women’s health-care clinic.”
The TV reboot of the big-screen hit M*A*S*H was also celebrating an acclaimed — and provocative — first season. In one episode, U.S. Army doctor Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda), a glib pacifist serving during the Korean War, sets out to undermine a bloodthirsty colonel (guest star Leslie Nielsen). In another, Hawkeye seeks to free a teenage Korean girl sold by her family to a U.S. soldier.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was hitting its stride in its third season, as the beloved Mary Richards (Moore) wondered why she was the only woman in the WJM newsroom. On Sanford — another freshman success — dad Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) and his adult son Lamont (Demond Wilson) ran a struggling L.A. junkyard. The men faced money troubles and, in turn, a collection agency.
All in the Family never shied away from real issues between the pointed laughs: in one episode, the Bunker family’s neighbors find a swastika painted on their door. “It would be very timely today,” Lear notes with a sad sigh. With three of the five series up for the gold, Lear does recall feeling energized that night. “Coming back from a commercial, Johnny Carson, who was hosting, said, ‘Welcome back to The Norman Lear Show!’”
Did the producer harbor a favorite among his TV children? “Sanford and Son was really more Bud Yorkin’s show,” dodges Lear, who is nonetheless proud he had a role in casting stand-up comic Foxx as the lead. But he was thrilled to walk on stage to accept All in the Family’s third trophy in a row for outstanding comedy (the show won 22 Emmys during its run, including four for outstanding comedy and another for outstanding new series).
Lear, who says he takes awards with “a grain of salt,” doesn’t remember too much else about the night — other than it was during the time when he was propelled to found the activist organization People for the American Way.
Barbeau says her life was changed by the “genius” Lear and by her costar (“Bea didn’t suffer fools, but she was so giving and loving and so professional!”). Barbeau has enjoyed a lengthy career, most recently guesting on Sons of Anarchy and scaling a trapeze as Berthe in a touring production of Pippin. She favors establishment-ruffling shows like The Good Wife spinoff, on CBS All-Access, The Good Fight.
Lear also enjoys shows that challenge the establishment: his must-sees include Transparent, black-ish and The Carmichael Show. Even so, don’t expect an All in the Family reboot, à la his recent redo of One Day at a Time for Netflix. “I wouldn’t do Archie Bunker. It would be another character entirely.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017
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